My Name is Brisbane, and We Have a Sun Problem…

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Ginny Barbour, Medicine Editorial Director at PLOS, reflects on a recent move to sunnier climes.

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Image Credit: Jan Smith, Flickr

My name is Brisbane, and we have a sun problem or, as a new acquaintance said to me, “Welcome to Brisbane, the skin cancer capitol of the world”, adding helpfully, “you’ll fry in about 5 minutes here.”

It’s 8.10 am in the Southern Queensland Spring, and according to the weather forecast in the Australian, it’s time to put the sun cream on. If acceptance of a problem is the first step to addressing it, Queenslanders are well on the way. The danger of the sun is a common theme among every Queenslander we have met in our short time here. Everyone has someone close to them who has had skin cancer of one sort or another. For a British family abroad in a hot climate, we find ourselves in the unusual position of not being the most pale skinned among a tanned local population. My daughter is probably the most tanned of her peers and this is regarded with some raised eyebrows; no one wants to be tanned.

It’s clear that the effects of sun damage are understood here and protection is taken seriously – both from those you’d expect, such as parents and teachers, but also in groups not always best known for taking health and safety seriously, such as workmen outside. The British habit of men going shirtless is unusual here; if someone is shirtless they probably are British! Suncream is everywhere, broad brimmed hats are ubiquitous and shade is prized.

This change in attitudes has happened fairly quickly. Above about 50, damaged skin is the norm; below, increasingly rare. Overall, it seems like Australians, at least in Brisbane, have taken ownership of skin damage as a private health problem and that, alongside any public policy campaign or intervention, surely has to be the key to addressing it.

This is I think an interesting example of needing to look locally at what a PLOS Medicine board member once described to me as “micro-DALYs”. That is,  something that has a high prevalence in a specific place but not necessarily globally and that can be overlooked if only diseases and conditions that cause the very highest burden of disease globally are prioritised for resources.

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